An article in the series Transition: the Next Generation of Leadership
When Steve Thoms first asked me to write about the change in
leadership in Birankai North America, I demurred. I have been so close to the
process that I thought I would not be able to step back enough from the people
and personalities engaged in the transition.
But after some reflection, I decided to try. Now that I am no longer Chair of the Senior Council, with my function devolved to (mostly) an advisory role, I have had the opportunity and privilege to look at the work we do in a different way.
I first want to thank the Birankai members who have guided us through a hard time, and have now passed their responsibilities to others. I particularly wish to recognize the outgoing President/Board Chair Alex Peterson, retired Executive Director Cindy Eggers, and retired Financial Advisor Lynne Ballew for their unswerving and careful management during the years of our teacher’s illness and passing. Thanks also to the members of the Senior Council, the Directors, and the many volunteers who have worked steadily to keep the organization healthy. I also want to thank the folks who have stepped up, and have selflessly accepted responsibility for the organization’s work, especially President/Board Chair Deb Pastors, Executive Director Neilu Naini, Senior Council Chair Frank Apodaca, Teachers Council Chair Roo Heins, and Summer Camp Coordinator Leslie Cohen.
It is natural for leadership to change over time. Governments, corporations, families – all have built-in processes to pass on knowledge and responsibility to the next generation. It is not only natural: it’s necessary. New people bring fresh ideas, new enthusiasms, and fresh responses to changing conditions.
BNA – and all Aikido organizations — reminds me very much of an ecosystem. (I beg the indulgence of the scientists among us who will cringe at my simplifications.) Imagine a forest. It is shaped by climate, soil character, and water. What kind of plants and animals inhabit it depends on how hot or cold the environment is, what nutrients the soil provides, and the abundance or absence of rain. But the forest is not a mechanical object. It is a living system: complex, inter-relational, and dynamic.
BNA too is a dynamic system. Prior to the creation of Birankai, Chiba Sensei described the organization he wished to develop as one which find a way to reconcile the values of American democracy and Japanese budo. He described it as he hoped it would be, as an harmonious and creative community. The work of that community is to support the transmission of the Way of Aiki from teachers to students. The transmission is manifested – given life — through Gyo, practice. Sensei was direct and explicit: “The foundation of the transmission is the teacher-student relationship. A transmission without the healthy development and dignity of the teacher-student relationship misses the essence of Aikido. It will dry up the essential Aikido life force.” [T.K. Chiba, January 1995.]
Birankai dojos are the place where that work is done. If BNA is an ecosystem, the individual dojos might be seen as habitats within that system. A flourishing forest contains a diversity of plants and animals. Birankai dojos, similarly, are distinct and diverse. Each has its own character, forged by the relationship of its students to their teacher. BNA as an organization exists to serve the Way. I believe that the best way to do that is to support our teachers, and to strengthen and assist the growth of our dojos, since they are where the transmission occurs.
This is a demanding time, not only for Aikido, but for many traditional martial arts. Birankai is nearly twenty years old. External conditions – cultural conditions — have changed since Chiba Sensei first envisioned it. But nothing, we know, is permanent. What happens to a forest when the weather patterns shift, if there is too much rain, or if there is none? A healthy ecosystem responds robustly to a change in conditions. What does an Aikido organization do when it encounters disruption or instability, either internally or externally? It holds fast to its mission, to serve the Way, and applies its knowledge and its skills to the encounter.
I am confident that BNA can respond flexibly to the challenges we face. The people who have volunteered to lead us are knowledgeable and mature. We have an abundance of dedicated teachers, who embody the art fully. We have a solid connection to the lineage and to the mother house. We have students who wish to study. And we have a compelling message: As Aikido practitioners, our lives have been transformed and enriched by training in this art. We must find ways to make this happiness visible to others.
I am deeply grateful to those members who have served BNA for so long, and now withdraw to rest, and equally grateful to those who have stepped up to share the work. I hope that, as we move into the future, we can remain united in friendship and in kindness.
“If it looks pretty, it’s not Aikido. You have to have tension.”
That is just one of the many thought-provoking asides offered by Piotr Masztalerz Sensei of Wroclaw Aikikai last month at a dynamic seminar at Brooklyn Aikikai. Masztalerz, rokudan Shidoin and a leader of Polish Birankai, brought his innovative approach to ukemi, technique and weapons to the U.S. for the first time at a major seminar.
Masztalerz studied intensively with Chiba Sensei both as an uchideshi in San Diego in the early 2000s and as a leader of European Birankai who attended many seminars and hosted him for several large camps in Poland.
With a large full-time dojo and hundreds of students, Masztalerz devotes himself to all of the elements of Birankai Aikido practice, with a special emphasis on the study of ukemi. His home base of Wroclaw (pronounced “vrots-wahf”) in western Poland hosts a lively scene that brings together actors, dancers, motorbike drivers and a range of martial artists in the study of movement at Wroclaw Aikikai.
Ukemi should be challenging and gymnastic at all levels in Aikido, Masztalerz says, with the intent of freeing up the body’s potential and exploring the art on a deeper level. Beginners need to learn practical falling skills from the very beginning or they won’t come back, he adds. Also important is that senior students push themselves at all ages to maintain their conditioning and try new ways of taking ukemi and executing techniques.
“It’s very important for people with experience to challenge themselves with ukemi,” Masztalerz says. “Ukemi is very physical, so you have to be fit. As soon as you feel like you already know it, you’re dead.”
This was the best summer camp in years for me. All summer camps are good but this one had some breakthroughs for me personally. I feel excited about it because it’s like an old dog learning new tricks.
I have been in Aikido since 1971 in Toronto and while I won’t say that a great deal of that time has been wasted, it has not been utilized to its maximum potential. Back in the day our senior teachers were Yamada Sensei and Kanai Sensei, both 5th dan then. It didn’t matter because to us they were (and still are) amazing in their dynamic execution of Aikido.
Back then the teaching was old school. They would show something a few times and then we would go for it. There was a lot of early talk about “extending your ki” and “holding your tanden,” and although we all would devoutly repeat these phrases I myself (and I suspect many others as well) didn’t have a clue as to what we were talking about…but it sounded cool!
Over the last 20 years in Aikido under our late founder Chiba Shihan, Aikido became codified and the method of teaching, of transmitting the knowledge, became much more conceptual to me. I say this because without having someone who really “knows and can teach,” a student (like me) can be doing something entirely wrong for decades. Or if not wrong, then empty perhaps is a better word.
For me at least, this change began when I started Iaido ten years ago in Birankai. From the get-go we were all (those of us who were newbies) told to not only study the forms, but to strive to use visualization when performing these forms. All of my Iaido teachers are wonderful. Each one stresses different aspects when they teach, but visualization is central with all of them.
Getting back to this year’s (2018) summer camp, I began to be able to (for short intervals of time), hold on to the visualization during the form. Wowee, what a thrill. An entirely new feeling that made the forms come wonderfully alive.
Now here’s the best part — it began spilling over into my body arts and weapons. I have to say that (for me at least) I try very hard (and have for many years) to concentrate all the way through a technique. I can think about the form and monitor it as I do it, but at the end I always realize that I blanked out during the middle. I remember the attack and the end but the middle? ”It’s all a blur,” as they say in the movies.
This camp has been the first time this old guy had several moments (yeah..not a lot) of being alive throughout an entire technique…watching my movement…my partner’s movement..his or her eyes…everything right to the end. It was an astonishing revelation for me and a true watershed moment.
Remember the first Spiderman movie? Peter Parker wakes up as spiderman and goes to his high school. At his locker some steroid juice monkey throws a punch at him. He watches the punch slip by him in slow motion due to his new spider sense. As crazy as it may sound…that’s what my visualizations felt like to me.
As I wind up this commentary I again won’t say that I’ve wasted most of my years…there have been many good points. But it wasn’t until this last camp the for me that I began to integrate what my teachers have been hammering into me for years.
Thoughts/direction from my recent seminar at Connecticut Aikikai:
A lot of these folks I only get to see once a year so I really wanted to give them something they could not only memorize as a technique but perhaps work on as a broad principle within their Aikido practice and when teaching and training.
My biggest concern in the seminar is that we are engaging correctly in the training process whatever the technique may be. Aikido technique has a certain correct rhythm that naturally emerges if one is holding their body in a correct manner – basically the unbalance should be immediate and continuous and the theme of that was my focus in this seminar with body art and weapons.
My wish is that my students find their own unique body and movement through the training which is an organic expression through sincere practice. I’m grateful to have this chance to teach and am looking forward to next year.
The amazing weather continues in Tacoma as Birankai North America prepares for testing tonight. Candidates for dan ranks and fukushidoin (junior teacher) recertification will be testing and all camp attendees are on notice to jump up for ukemi. Should be a fun (and tiring) night. Gambatte!
Our friends in Birankai Europe are having their Aikido Summer Camp this week and the teachers posed for a nice photo in Germany.
We gathered up some teachers for our own Birankai North America photo, trying our best to look Euro-cool in the bright Tacoma sunshine. We send our love to our European friends and hope to see you all soon!
Lots of people are arriving at the University of Puget Sound campus for 2018 Birankai North America Summer Camp and the first class starts at 7 pm. Some snapshots as camp revs up — above is the crack Aikido Daiwa mat team testing out the training surface!
Didier Boyet Shihan started studying with Chiba Sensei in 1977, spending an extensive amount of time with him in Japan, Europe, England and San Diego. Boyet lived in Tokyo and trained at Hombu Dojo from 1977 to 2016 – he currently lives in Paris and travels the world teaching Aikido seminars. The following is an edited transcript of several conversations between Boyet Shihan and Liese Klein in Tokyo in March of 2016. Some of Boyet Sensei’s experiences are also related in the upcoming biography The Life-Giving Sword: Kazuo Chiba’s Life in Aikido. Boyet Sensei will be the featured guest instructor at 2018 Birankai Aikido Summer Camp, July 20-25 in Tacoma, Wash.
Tell me about your arrival in Tokyo in 1977.
I arrived on Oct. 4, a Tuesday, and on the 7th, I joined Chiba Sensei’s class. I came a little bit early: He signed me up at the dojo then he took me to Kisshomaru Sensei’s house. Then he took me to his class, I changed and sat down in the dojo. There were very few people, maybe 12. When everyone bowed in, the only one left to train with was this Japanese guy. We started training and I thought, ‘This guy’s trying to kill me!’ I’m thinking that I can’t take it, I’m going to die! That was Shibata Sensei. I had very long hair at that time – for iriminage he grabbed me by the hair. After class everyone was laughing. I was a very weak shodan. Then I started going to Shibata Sensei’s class and he sort of liked me. We were eight people in this class at 3 pm. The class was very wonderful, it was very dynamic but basic, basic.
How did you first meet Chiba Sensei?
I first met Chiba Sensei during the Tamura Sensei Summer Camp of 1973 or ’74 in Villefranche-de-Rouergue, France. I believe that this was Chiba Sensei’s first visit to France although he had been living in England since 1966.
When I saw Chiba Sensei practice for the first time, I said ‘Oh my god.’ It was raw. There was violence but I never saw it as violence, I saw it as something raw, mainly, He hadn’t polished anything yet. I was totally subdued by that. After this Summer Camp I tried to attend as many seminars and classes that he conducted as far as I could.
He returned to Japan from England in 1976; I met him September of 1977, in San Sebastian (Spain), where he was conducting a seminar with [Nobuyoshi] Tamura.
Chiba Sensei was 36. He had so much fire. He would go to class to practice, not to play around. I practiced with him as a partner at that seminar in San Sebastian. I remember doing nikkyo with him, suwariwaza for maybe 30 minutes. I couldn’t eat for a whole week; I couldn’t use my hands anymore. Just like two pieces of wood. He’d take you all around the mat, drag you.
I told Tamura I wanted to spend a couple of years in Japan. Tamura said I had better talk to Chiba and he would introduce me at Hombu. We had a special lunch in San Sebastian. Chiba said, ‘No, there are already so many French people who give me trouble every day, I don’t want another one.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, I already brought my ticket!’
How did you start Aikido?
I was living south of Paris, in a city called Tours where I landed a job in 1971. I had just moved to the city and did not know anyone there. I went to see a movie but unfortunately that day was the movie theaters’ day off. So, here I am, in front of a closed movie theater and I noticed that there was another guy who, like me, did not know that movie theaters had holidays. We joked about it and sat in the next café for a drink. In that place, there was a small TV hanging on the wall and showing, you won’t believe it, an episode of a documentary about Japanese martial arts dedicated to Aikido. I had never heard of Aikido and I was not interested in Japan or the Far East for that matter. But it struck me and the next day I called the city hall to find out if the small city of Tours had an Aikido dojo. And it did and the clerk knew about it. I immediately started to train.
My first teacher soon took me to Tamura Sensei. I really liked Tamura Sensei’s Aikido, he was extremely dynamic. Tamura Sensei didn’t have a dojo in Paris, he never did. He was working for the French Aikido federation, going one place to another every weekend. I got my shodan in 1976. Around that time, Chiba urged Tamura to invite Mitsuzuka Sensei to
France to teach Iaido. Tamura Sensei would always do a couple hours of Iaido at seminars, and I knew shoden [basic forms]. I got to drive Mitsuzuka Sensei around in the summer of 1977, all over Europe. Mitsuzuka Sensei was very Japanese, he behaved abroad like he did in Japan –Tamura and Chiba behaved differently. Mitsuzuka Sensei would come to a seminar, people would practice for a couple of weeks, and he’d give them third dan or fourth dan! The other Japanese teachers would go bananas. ‘These guys are going to go open a dojo!’ In Japan, fourth dan is nothing.
Did many Europeans appreciate Chiba Sensei?
Some people, not a lot. It was completely new.
Tell me about the private classes with Chiba Sensei at Hombu Dojo.
Chiba Sensei was back in Japan after 10 years in England, and he had already a clear view of what he wanted to do. To do it, he needed people to work on. The private classes had started a few months before I arrived. They were on Tuesday and Thursday at 1 pm. We used the small tatami room on the fourth floor; the door was closed for total privacy. We started at 1 clock, but most of the time it went on for at least two or three hours. The foreigners were Paul Sylvain, Lorraine DiAnne, Meik Skoss, Dee Chen, Bruce Bookman, Jay Dunkelman and two Scottish guys. Shibata Sensei would usually join in. Sometimes the door would crack open and a head would come out and say ‘Dame, dame dame!’ [Wrong, wrong, wrong!] that was Yamaguchi Sensei. He’s in his suit, he was teaching in the morning, suit and necktie. He would take over and show us what to do. Chiba Sensei loved it.
Chiba Sensei was enthusiastic in the private classes. He was not the same as he was in Europe. He was very approachable, he liked jokes. He loved these private classes.
It was rough because everybody was scared, even though in four years there were no accidents, no serious injuries in the private lessons. It was really tense. There was tension on each side. We were so eager to learn and he was so eager to teach.
What kinds of things was Sensei focusing on in those classes?
He would bring in Budo, a thick book written by O-Sensei before the war. We went through the whole book, one page or a couple of pages a day. He would put the book on the kamiza; he’d turn to it and look at it again. It was really like a laboratory. For us it was a great way to learn things. Then bokken, weapons work. Lots of it.
When did you start training in Iaido with Takeshi Mitsuzuka Sensei?
As soon as I arrived in Japan. I went through Chiba Sensei, he said OK, come to the dojo. We went to the Iaido dojo in Yotsuya Sanchome, the old one. Chiba Sensei officially asked Mitsuzuka if I could join, he introduced me and asked him if he would agree to take me on as a student. Everything was under Chiba Sensei’s tutelage. Chiba Sensei always practiced Iaido. At one point Chiba Sensei told us he got hurt during a trip with O-Sensei and O-Sensei left him in an Iaido dojo somewhere in the south of Honshu. He had to practice Iaido to get his back better. He also collected swords; he had many in Japan.
I went three times a week to Yotsuya police station to train in Iaido with Mitsuzuka Sensei. You could do it at Hombu but it had to be secret, you had to hide yourself. Chiba Sensei was practicing Iaido on his own at Hombu – he couldn’t come to Mitsuzuka Sensei’s except on the weekends because he was so busy. He cut himself once so bad, all by himself upstairs. We were changing in the locker room, he came down he had his hakama around his arm, blood was dripping from the hakama. He said, ‘Go clean!’ He disappeared, went to the clinic for stitches. He had cut a vein, it was pissing blood. We go up there and there is blood all over the stairs going to the fourth floor. We open the door and go, ‘Oh shit.’ The white mat was covered with blood. We spent about two hours with cold water and rags until it disappeared.
We knew that if [Kisabura] Osawa Sensei, the dojo-cho, saw the mess he was going to be so pissed. He was very against doing any weapons in the dojo: When doing bokken, we had to close the windows so nobody could hear the noise of the weapons.
What was it like to practice with Kisaburo Osawa Sensei?
Osawa Sensei had a class on Friday at 5:30, and he gave that class to Chiba Sensei. I would go to his Wednesday morning class and he used me for ukemi every time, but he never addressed me. In his class, Osawa Sensei did everything slow, he would show things very, very slowly. He would slow down like slow motion. It was very beautiful. There were mostly Japanese in class; he never talked to foreigners and I don’t think he liked them. He was an old-style Japanese nationalist. Right after the war, he had a bar in Shinjuku. When the dojo started to grow again in the 1950s, Doshu went to pick him up.
Why were foreigners so drawn to Chiba Sensei at Hombu?
We understood what he was doing. We were just there to train. We were not supported by our own federations but we asked for it. We had no money – nobody wanted any money, we didn’t care about it. All that we wanted was to train, train, train, train.
We often went out with Chiba Sensei. He talked a lot; he liked to practice his English. He liked his group. He told us stories of his time with O-Sensei. When O-Sensei would come down from Iwama, he would arrive at Hombu and he never said anything. He would show up at Hombu and pick up somebody to go with him as kaban-mochi (bag-carrier). I remember Chiba Sensei saying that he knew O-Sensei was coming when he saw [Yoshimitsu] Yamada running and closing himself up in a closet so O-Sensei would not see him and take him on a trip!
Being a kaban-mochi was very hard. After O-Sensei arrived, he would say, ‘You!’ and he would leave. You have to pack your stuff and then grab his stuff and run after him and he’s gone to the station and he doesn’t have tickets! They would take the cable car from Nuke Benten [transit stop near Hombu Dojo] to Shinjuku Station. Chiba Sensei used to say you had to go into the train cars and find a place next to or in front of a beautiful girl. O-Sensei loved to talk to beautiful girls, and you had to go from one car to the other and find somebody alone. Otherwise you’d have to persuade who was sitting next to her to move aside.
As kaban-mochi, you never talked to O-Sensei because he’s up there. [Gestures above his head.] You don’t talk up.
Chief instructors Malory Graham of Seattle Aikikai, Liese Klein of New Haven Aikikai and Ea Murphy of Tacoma Aikikai collaborated on a workshop at Seattle Aikikai on July 14, 2018. The event focused on the Seattle Aikikai monthly theme of “exploring levels.” Graham Sensei and Murphy Sensei worked with the katatedori, morotedori and ryotedori grabs while Klein Sensei led students through the basics of the Sansho 2 jo kata.
All Aikido practitioners of all affiliations are welcome at Birankai North America Summer Campand it’s not too late to sign up. Drop-ins are also welcome as commuters. Sign up hereand see everyone at camp!
If you’re shopping on Amazon for Prime Day this year, don’t forget to help Birankai North America through the Amazon Smile program. Amazon donates 0.5% of the price of your eligible AmazonSmile purchases to the nonprofit organization of your choice, and Birankai North America is on the list!
Just check out the Amazon Smile page and be sure to type in Birankai North America when prompted to enter a nonprofit. We use that money to pay for scholarships, grants and training events like Summer Camp and Instructors’ Intensives and we need every cent! Thanks for your support and happy shopping!
Check out this great newsletter put out by Birankai Europe in both English and French. Our Birankai North America newsletter, Biran, will be available at Summer Camp with great articles on the theme of “The Art and Science of Aikido.” Also find out in detail what the Exam Committee is looking for in tests — make sure someone from your dojo picks up your copies!
Birankai North America Summer Camp 2018 guest instructor Didier Boyet Shihan gave a great seminar this past week in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Visit the Facebook page of Leonardo Marques Câmara Sodré to see hundreds of photos of the event – you may even catch a glimpse of Luis Gonçalves, who visited Birankai Summer Camp in San Diego a few years ago while he was living in Japan. (The photo up top is one of many high-quality images.)
Looking forward to seeing Boyet Sensei soon in Tacoma and greetings to our friends in Brazil!
The importance of correct usage of the feet and twisting movements, was the theme of the day. With jyo in the morning and bokken in the afternoon, basic strikes and movements were reviewed. There were beginners and youth, so the material was appropriate for their level, yet by the end, the senior students realized the teaching was thoughtful and presented a deep understanding that Apodaca Sensei has developed through his personal training.
After the last class, kids and dogs went swimming. Then the make-your-own pizza party got started! Afterward, some people had to get home, but lots stayed for a campfire and conversation. The next morning those that were still around had an unplanned class at the dojo. It was interesting to apply the footwork and twisting themes from the day before to body arts.
The day before the seminar Apodaca Sensei visited Grass Valley Aikikai and conducted a shodan test for Marci Martinez, who passed. We were so happy to include out of town guests and all visit together over tacos at the dojo.
Looking back, we realized that while we officially hosted a one day seminar, that in reality it turned into a three day event. So we decided next year we should just turn it into a proper three day seminar – Friday night, all day Saturday, Sunday morning! We invited Apodaca Sensei to come again and he said he would! So make your plans – probably next year the weekend after Father’s Day. Why not make a vacation of it? Bring your family and spend a week seeing the sights and enjoying the beautiful Sierras. Do come if you can. Everyone is welcome.
Spring is the busy season for major Aikido events in Japan, with the annual visit to the Iwama Aiki Shrine one of the highlights. Check out the video above featuring Moriteru Ueshiba Doshu along with Mitsuteru Ueshiba, Doshu’s son and the great-grandson of the founder.
Below are some clips from the other big spring event, the annual all-Japan Aikido demonstration, or Embukai. Below are clips of Birankai favorite Yoko Okamoto Sensei and Akira Wada Sensei, a longtime student of Chiba Sensei’s from Tashiro Dojo in Nagoya. Wada Sensei started studying with Chiba Sensei in 1963 at Tashiro Dojo, which also served as an early training ground for another young Hombu Dojo instructor: Mitsunari Kanai.
Check out the many high-quality Aikido clips from Japan on the Seido channel on Youtube, in addition to lots of other video of arts including Yagyu Seigo Ryo Batto, Shibukawa Ichi Ryu Jujutsu and Chokugen Ryu Onaginata Jutsu.
Report on Deena Drake at Huron Valley Aikikai, June 9-10: Though the “June Gloom” followed Drake Sensei from San Diego, participants from several Midwest dojos braved the humidity and benefited greatly (if damply) from two days of vigorous training. Drake Sensei presented clear and dynamic techniques, emphasizing the importance of honest, centered attacks and responses, and pushing us all to bring the liveliness! Our youth students who participated in the classes pushed their boundaries and came out the other side with a new appreciation of Aikido as not just ‘kids stuff’ as well. Many thanks to Drake Sensei for making the trip and for offering us the example of her training.
As we approach the publication date of “The Life-Giving Sword: Kazuo Chiba’s Life in Aikido,” I’d like highlight one important facet of the book – it’s not just about Chiba Sensei. At close to 400 pages, this book attempts to profile an entire generation of Aikido pioneers. These are the young Japanese men who left Hombu Dojo in the 1960s under the direction of Kisshomaru Ueshiba to heed O-Sensei’s call to build “bridges across the ocean” and bring Aikido to the West.
Using Chiba Sensei’s writings, historic materials and in-person interviews where possible, I’ve attempted to profile many of these men and tell their stories of struggle and triumph in Europe, the U.K. and the Americas.
The book also explores the foundational role of several of Chiba Sensei’s most important sempai: Koichi Tohei, Morihiro Saito and Mutsuro Nakazono, along with influential teachers like Tadashi Abe, Kenshiro Abbe, Sadateru Arikawa, Kisaburo Osawa, Seigo Yamaguchi and Hiroshi Tada. These men, along with Kisshomaru Ueshiba, shaped the Aikido and careers of Chiba Sensei’s generation and continue to influence many across the Aikido world.
Life as a direct student of O-Sensei at both Hombu Dojo and Iwama is also explored in-depth in a section on the early careers of the post-war generation. Throughout the narrative, several of Chiba Sensei’s close colleagues, especially Yoshimitsu Yamada, Mitsunari Kanai and Nobuyoshi Tamura, are discussed in detail as they developed their own dojos, organizations and teaching styles. As far as I know, this is the first full-length treatment of this period of Aikido history.
Sign up now to reserve a first-edition copy of “The Life-Giving Sword: Kazuo Chiba’s Life in Aikido.” You will be notified as soon as copies are ready for sale and directed to an online purchasing page.
(Active Birankai North America members will be notified automatically, but if you want more than one copy, please submit the form below.)
The first time I met Boyet Sensei he was wearing a black, rabbit felt hat with a wide brim and no decoration other than a simple black band chasing around the crown. A bold yet natural choice for the cold weather of Vancouver BC in February 2017.
Attending his seminar at Mountain Coast Aikikai caused my practice to shift. Until then, I was practicing the techniques being taught. A beginner working at the surface.
My eyes absorbed, my mind decoded and my body moved.
What I found in Boyet Sensei’s teaching was essential, direct and fluid. A bold simplicity that resonated with my creative values.
“You do not have time” he said while we worked through a shomen bokken technique. He emphasized how important one, clear movement was in meeting the attack of an opponent’s weapon.
“You will be dead,” he finished, underscoring that speed was a matter of timing and reduction to essential movement. It was not a matter of more, but rather less.
His lesson was simple; nine words, one clear meaning. It catalyzed my Aikido practice with new perspective because he taught through the language of my creative values. I left the dojo in Vancouver excited to put the weekend’s learnings to daily practice.
It had triggered the shift, but the avalanche was still to come.
A year later, March 2018, Portland was emerging from winter’s slumbering rhythm. A bouquet of purple tulips rested with a wild, natural gesture on the kamiza at Multnomah Aikikai. Boyet Sensei was in town to teach a seminar at my home dojo.
I had just come off a rather taxing period in my career that ended abruptly. I was feeling listless and disinterested creatively. A problem for a designer and perfect timing for the kind of provocation a mentor can inspire.
I spent the whole weekend on the tatami, eager to absorb all the Aikido I could. To my surprise, what I learned illuminated a path beyond the dojo and helped to reignite my dimming passion for design.
Once again, Boyet Sensei was direct in his practice. No fluffy stuff, no extra movement; all practicality, applied simply.
A year before I was encountering all of it for the first time; I was just happy to get a signal. This time, I was tuning into the finer lessons that come with familiarity.
“Copy from someone better than you until you have made it your own, then find another person.” He lectured between techniques.
I thought about all the senior students and instructors I had learned from. Gweyn’s ukemi, Bill’s kokyu-ho, Thoms Sensei’s tenchinage. But had I committed myself to it? Had I owned my practice? Had I possessed my creative identity?
“You do not have time” he said about the little extra movements he was trying to prune out of his students. Once again, those five words echoed the clear message that changed my mindset a year prior.
The way that Boyet Sensei demonstrated techniques struck like a bolt of lightning. Just enter, turn, and there it is; Ikkyo. The clarity of movement leaves nothing mysterious, and the reduction reveals beauty.
He spoke in familiar language.
“You must be beautiful, and to be beautiful, it must be simple.” Boyet Sensei explained during the Sunday morning Iaido class. “it may take fifteen, twenty years, but if you train, you will find it.”
In the creative arts, it is no different. Form follows function. Less is more. But getting there is a messy exercise with a lot of wasted movement. Out of the process emerges the value.
Boyet Sensei reminded me that the practice is the purpose. Beauty will come.
This is a lesson every creative from Dietre Rams to Paul Motian and the Eames have tried to pass on. Owning one’s way of being, their “do” is born in practice. Beauty is a result, not a destination.
Boyet Sensei had connected my Aikido practice with my creative values. His teaching changed the way I do both. It guided me below the surface and gave me a deeper perspective of my Aikido journey. It made my practice personal and I felt recommitted.
I try to remind myself to find the simple path and follow it boldly. In ikkyo or in life.
Rob Darmour is a 5th kyu member of Multnomah Aikikai. This essay first appeared in the Multnomah Aikikai blog; click the link to see the original and view a brief montage of Boyet Sensei practicing Iaido by Sam Brimhall.
More newly posted clips of Boyet Sensei can be found at the Birankai Aikido Video Channel on Youtube:
The mat was packed for all three days of the Chiba Sensei Memorial Seminar at Brooklyn Aikikai June 1-3, 2018. The event featured instructors George Lyons Shihan of Bucks County Aikido, Toko (Jenny) Flower Sensei of Athens Aikido and Ryugan (Robert) Savoca Sensei of Brooklyn Aikikai.
From Lyons Sensei’s closing remarks on June 3, 2018:
“I’ve been running through my memories of meeting an extraordinary person, Chiba Sensei. What do I remember about those days? Much of it is just in my body now, as best as it can be. I’m working to cultivate that so hopefully it’s alive in me. Chiba Sensei said once: ‘Until you’re a master of it, you’re a slave to it.’ That one kind of stuck with me.
“Discussing the teacher-student relationship, in many ways we struggle to understand it. Right up until Chiba Sensei’s death I was trying to understand it. Even now, I work on it, even though he’s gone. Of course I don’t think he’s gone, in some way.
“It is the problem of authority, giving over to an authority. In my opinion I think it’s not surrender to it but more transcending it, if that makes sense to you. At first it might feel like you’re surrendering to your teacher. But hopefully we’re going past that. You’re not going to be a slave to your teacher, that’s the not the intention. The intention is to let go of something, and to transcend it. Then you’re free to do whatever you want. And you’re probably very grateful, as I am. So you are master of it.
“You are supposed to stand on the shoulders of your teacher. Your teacher is someone you have always put up, so it’s a difficult idea. Somehow maybe we can drop something and you can reach your teacher for the first time, as a full grown human being with full potential.
“Funny, but we somehow put something in the way. It’s human nature. I see it on the mat in just basic things. When I say, ‘Don’t move your feet like that, do this.’ They say ‘Hai, Sensei!’ and they do the same thing they did before. It didn’t change one bit. I’m a human being too so I make the same stupid mistakes. When we do that, I think we just can’t hear it yet. Eventually you can, you can hold more. When you finally hear it, you say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ [Laughs.] This comes to the point of training over time. In farming you can’t pull the shoots up early to make them grow faster. It takes time. If you pull the shoots up, there’s nothing there.
“In the same way, when you’re practicing it takes some time. It has to mature. It’s just the nature of things. You come to the dojo every day, every day. ‘What’s the point of this? I can’t do ikkyo one more time, I’m out of my mind.’ You keep doing it until something gets out of the way. You make every effort that you can until you realize that all that effort is getting in the way. It’s a paradox you have to solve yourself, everybody does.
“I’m really pleased to be here with you to celebrate the life our teacher. For you guys, be careful because the stories get bigger and bigger as time passes. It was incredible times, but we tell stories…
“This is the time. Now is the time. This is our time. It’s fun to hear stories about the past, but when you’re sitting around with a bunch of people talking about the old days, be careful. This is the day. Today is the day. We’re proud to be here with you, proud to know you, and may we carry on. ”